War over truce

Published : Jan 06, 2001 00:00 IST

It is clear that the unilateral offer of a ceasefire from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is calculated to grab the moral high ground, but still there is pressure on the Sri Lankan government to grab the opportunity and initiate talks.

IT is a classic instance of being so near, yet so far. When Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabakaran met Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim in November, it seemed that peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and its adve rsary were not far away. That feeling returned in the closing weeks of December, when the LTTE unilaterally declared a ceasefire, but seemed to fade away as quickly when the government said that it would not reciprocate before the talks actually began an d progressed to the satisfaction of both sides.

The LTTE's ceasefire offer came on December 21. Calling it a "goodwill gesture" for the festival season that extends for a month from Christmas eve, beyond the Tamil festival of Pongal in January, the LTTE asked the government to reciprocate. That, it sa id, would lay the foundations for a durable ceasefire and direct negotiations between the two sides. The declaration was clearly a move to force the government to accept its conditions for peace talks, that is, a de-escalation of the war and the restorat ion of conditions of normalcy in the Tamil north - in other words, the lifting of the economic embargo on the area.

Both these conditions had by then been rejected by Colombo. In a strongly worded statement authorised by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has been out of the country since November 24, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said that the government wou ld consider these conditions only after negotiations commenced on "core issues" and made satisfactory progress. The "core issues"', the government said, were the stoppage of the war, the cessation of all terrorist killings, a negotiated settlement of the Tamil people's problems and the speedy resolution of the problems of people displaced by war.

While interpreting Prabakaran's much-discussed "Heroes' Day" speech, wherein he had expressed a willingness to talk to the Sri Lankan government, observers had noted that for the first time in many years the LTTE leader had not demanded the withdrawal of government troops from the peninsula. The government, however, chose to interpret the LTTE demand for the creation of "conditions of normalcy" as precisely that - the withdrawal of troops.

The message from the government was clear: it would engage the LTTE in negotiations, but it would not halt its military operations in the north. But with the LTTE announcing a truce, it seemed as if the government might have to reconsider its position. W hile it was clear that the LTTE's move was calculated to grab the moral high ground, those who supported talks with the separatists urged Colombo to grasp the hand that Prabakaran had offered. It also seemed as if the LTTE had given the government an opp ortunity to move towards peace talks without angering hard-line Sinhala nationalist opinion. For this section of the Sri Lankan population, reciprocating a ceasefire offer might be a lesser concession to the LTTE than initiating one. There was also consi derable international pressure on the government. British Deputy Foreign Minister Peter Hain probably spoke for the community of Western nations when he expressed the hope that the government would respond positively to the LTTE's gesture.

WITHIN hours of the truce announcement, however, the government made it clear that it would not march to the LTTE's music. At dawn on December 22, government troops launched an assault aimed at wresting control of a strategic road that connects Jaffna to wn to Chavakachcheri. The battle was fierce and the casualties were high. The Army lost 25 soldiers, including an officer. The LTTE is said to have lost over 50 fighters. The military said the operation was successful, with the troops taking control of 3 4 sq km of territory and all but 2 km of the highway.

Technically, there were still two more days to go for the ceasefire to take effect. So, even if the government intended to respond positively, it was within its rights to launch the operation when it did. In the event, the operation, the seventh in the s eries of military offensives since September, code-named Kiniheera, the Sinhala word for anvil, set the tone for the government's response, which came on December 23.

Once again on the authorisation of Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Kadirgamar put out a joint statement (perhaps to dispel the impression that was fast gaining ground that the government spoke in different voices through differen t functionaries) rejecting the LTTE's offer. The statement reiterated the government's earlier position that a ceasefire was "a consequent step" to the commencement and progress of negotiations to the satisfaction of both sides. It said further goodwill gestures were unnecessary when the government had already indicated its willingness to engage the LTTE in negotiations. Evidently, the government fears that the LTTE will use a ceasefire to regroup and make a military comeback in the peninsula.

The statement also made it clear that the government had heard of the ceasefire but not through the Norwegian facilitators. Prabakaran had not mentioned a ceasefire offer to Solheim when the two met, nor had the LTTE leader made a reference to one in his November 27 speech. In short, the government was saying that it objected to the LTTE trying to steal diplomatic mileage out of the ceasefire issue.

However, the LTTE decided that it would go ahead with its truce even without government participation and asked the government to reconsider its position. It said, however, that it reserved the right to defend itself against any government offensive duri ng the period.

At the heart of the matter is a question that has created another seemingly unbridgeable gap between the two sides: can two warring sides talk while fighting? The government's answer is an emphatic affirmative. Kadirgamar said the LTTE fighters were not "babies" and were capable of engaging in battles and talks simultaneously. But the LTTE says no, and it describes the government position as an "irreconcilable contradiction".

The two positions are symptomatic of the deep mistrust that exists between the two sides. However, it seems increasingly as if the government might eventually have to give in to the LTTE on this issue if it wants to take the Norwegian-backed peace proces s forward.

Mid-December saw Kumaratunga standing before Sri Lanka's donors in Paris, making an appeal for financial assistance. Despite a projected growth rate of over 6 per cent for 2000, powered by the export-oriented garment and tea industries, Sri Lanka's econo my is in a poor shape, with the defence budget eating away at its vitals. That and high oil bills have forced the government into heavy borrowing in recent months. But the 24 donor countries and organisations that comprise the Sri Lanka Development Forum want to see results on the ground, especially of the Norwegian-backed peace moves, before making any new financial commitments. They also delivered the government a rap on the knuckles for not living up to the standards of good governance expected of a country that had achieved OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) standards of human development.

The government's present position vis-a-vis the LTTE is perhaps born out of confidence on the military front, of having staved off a well-armed force that only six months ago seemed on the brink of inflicting upon it a humiliating defeat. The only problem is that it is not yet in an unassailable position. While the military is equipped with new hardware, it is still short on the sort of strategic brilliance required to turn the situation around conclusively in its favour. Also, the assumption that the LTTE is now a finished force co uld turn out to be totally wrong. Several times in the past the LTTE has made comebacks purely because the government underestimated its capabilities. For this reason, sections of the pro-talks lobby urge the government to make a concession now, when it can do so from a position of military strength, rather than possibly being forced to do so later from a position of military weakness. So, despite the fact that this roller-coaster of a peace process has hit another low, the newyear could well bring a to tally different scenario.

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